Cancel Rookie Camp? Why Should We Care?

Posted May 16, 2012

Prospects & Tryouts watch the action on the ice at the Capitals 2011 Development Camp (Photo Credit: Alena Rani)

Rumor has it that NHL teams are planning to cancel Rookie Camps (and associated events) due to the pending CBA expiration in September (source Allan Walsh, of Octagon).  While the teams involved haven’t been named, it’s safe to say that even those who haven’t made the decision to cancel must be considering the option.

With no guaranteed timeframe for the resolution of negotiations, even if all sides seem to agree that a lockout is undesirable, it makes sense from a practical POV to hedge bets.  This is not the first such action by the league – remember that the exhibition games in Europe were cancelled back in March.

To be fair, both Development Camp and Rookie Camp are of more interest to those who follow the minor leagues.  Players invited for either event are unlikely to land a regular roster spot with the hosting NHL club, though often a few will see time as call-ups over the course of the season.  In Washington, it’s a great chance for local fans to see and get to know incoming players without needing to make the trek to Hershey or Charleston.

While they’re often lumped together, the two one-week events have some distinctive differences.  D-Camp features a younger and broader range of attendees – college kids, recent draft picks, and CHLers are the mainstay of the mid-summer festivities (called “conditioning camp” by some organizations).  The good news is that D-Camp is scheduled well in advance of any potential CBA-related drama, and its primary focus on non-contracted players (or those whose contracts have the ability to “slide”, such as CHL players for whom the first year of their contract doesn’t go into effect until they play their tenth NHL game).  As a result, it’s likely to remain on the books as previously planned.

Often, one or two players out of D-Camp will spend time with the Caps at some point in the year.  This past year, both Dmitry Orlov and Cody Eakin were summertime guests of the big club.  Mattias Sjogren was also in town, but he’s still in the dog house over that whole heading back to Sweden after 19 AHL games fiasco.

Rookie Camp is a smaller crowd, primarily because attendance makes players ineligible for NCAA competition.  CHL players, minor league veterans, and recent signees mean that the age range skews a bit higher.  Rookie Camp is where the declared professionals new to the organization – or hoping to land a contract with the larger organization – have a chance to impress the front office before the established roster players have their say.

But the basic question, for the fans, is why worry about rookie camp?  As long as the season pulls itself together before October, does any of this really matter?  The answer is yes – and not just for the minor league aficionados like me.

Rookie Camp is an important learning opportunity for players who are one and two years away from joining the big club – in Washington, or elsewhere.  This spring, a half-dozen college signees got an invaluable glimpse at the professional game while Hershey was running on roster fumes, but that situation was the exception instead of the norm.  Rookie camp serves the same purpose, but in a controlled environment that allows both players and coaches to get a feel for each other.  It’s a stepping stone, and even with big names like Evgeny Kuznetsov opting out there are still strong players who would likely be on next fall’s roster – Stanislav Galiev being the biggest name at the moment, with his Saint John Sea Dogs currently vying for the CHL’s Memorial Cup, but the 11th overall pick in this year’s draft would surely make the list as well.

There are still four months until the Capitals traditionally host their Rookie Camp, and there’s a chance that the CBA negotiations could conclude in time to allow at least some of the regular festivities.  If not, expect next year’s call-ups to be a bit less familiar and a bit more hesitant in whatever systems the new Caps coach puts into place.